Jackson, Michael (1958—)

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Jackson, Michael (1958—)

The nucleus of his own mammoth pop sideshow, pop singer Michael Jackson absorbed the most affecting African American musical traditions with which he had grown up, infused them with his own musical eccentricity and the popular trends and technology of the moment, and created a popular explosion of nearly unprecedented proportions. Although perceived as the ultimate sexual, racial, and social "Other," between 1982 and 1984 Jackson helped sell over 40 million copies of the record album called, most appropriately, Thriller. In the late 1980s, Jackson again established new records with his album Bad and its accompanying worldwide concert tour. During the early 1990s, Jackson's inscrutable off-stage antics made him one of the best-known eccentrics in modern history.

By the time Jackson left on the notorious 1984 "Victory Tour" as lead singer of the Jacksons pop-soul singing group, he had already broken all the rules of popular success in the late-twentieth-century music industry. A teen idol without any apparent sexual interests of his own, he attracted a huge popular audience without compromising his black musical roots, and displayed eccentricities that constantly kept him in the headlines. An obviously unhappy man, Jackson revealed his social and personal discontent in his overwhelming, unavoidable, and disturbing strangeness. That strangeness reached disconcerting proportions in 1993, when a thirteen year old Beverly Hills boy made a criminal complaint against Jackson alleging sexual molestation—a claim Jackson repeatedly denied. After a thirteen month investigation—during which time Jackson settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit—the district attorneys in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties announced that they would not file charges unless and until a child witness agreed to testify against Jackson in open court. They also announced that the case would not close until the statute of limitations ran out in August of 1999.

Those allegations continued to disrupt Jackson's career well into the late 1990s. He suffered financial setbacks during this time and, while his albums still sold well in Europe, they did not fare as well in the United States. As of 1999, Jackson had not recorded an album of all new material since the early 1990s. Instead, he concentrated on arranging his personal financial matters, frequently announcing plans to fund theme parks in such places as Poland, Brazil, Japan, and Las Vegas.

Before the "madness" of Thriller and the subsequent publicity stunts and notorious allegations regarding his personal life, Michael Jackson was a member of a family singing group from Gary, Indiana, called the Jackson Five. In addition to Michael himself, the group originally included four of his five brothers. A child performing sensation from the age of five, Jackson was one of the nation's finest 1960s rhythm & blues vocalists long before his grade school graduation. An acolyte of James Brown and Jackie Wilson, the young Jackson was also a dancer of nearly unmatched ferocity and versatility. His singing skill far surpassed any other child recording artist; young Michael almost literally sang his heart out. The eleven-yearold boy sang of desire, joy, anguish, and loss with all the sophistication and embittered knowledge of a man in his 40s. His presence on the radio in the early 1970s stunned and impressed listeners. Very quickly, the group amassed a vast collection of gold records and was able to move to a California mansion.

Although clearly gifted, Michael did not come by his success "naturally"; he was trained by a fierce, brutal, and unforgiving group leader: his father. Joseph Jackson was a crane operator at a Gary steel mill who left a music career behind in the early 1950s to support his rapidly growing family. He put his guitar away in a closet as a "memory piece" and warned the children never to touch it. When nine-year-old Tito Jackson was caught playing the guitar in 1962, he was, by his own account, "torn up" by his father. This was the founding event of the Jackson Five; after the incident with Tito, Joseph began to organize the youngsters into a singing group. The group, at first, did not include three-and-a-half-year-old Michael; he made his entrance when his parents caught him imitating older brother Jermaine's singing. They were alarmed and delighted, and Michael was immediately installed as the group's tiny new front man.

Michael and his siblings have reported being beaten and terrorized by their father during their childhood. Joseph Jackson ran long daily rehearsal sessions armed with belts and switches, which he used with frequency and severity. Sister La Toya Jackson has said that the beatings the siblings endured were bloody and often involved the use of fists, while Michael reported in his autobiography that he fought back with his own small fists. "I would fight back and my father would kill me, just tear me up. Mother told me I'd fight back even when I was very little, but I don't remember that. I do remember running under tables to get away from him, and making him angrier." Joseph denied this charge to the Associated Press with telling succinctness: "Maybe I should've punched La Toya, like any other normal parent would do, but La Toya stayed quiet and never did get into any trouble or nothing." La Toya Jackson also made charges of sexual abuse against her father, which he has repeatedly denied. At the age of thirty-four, Michael said he was still frightened of his father and that on meeting him, he often "would get sick; I would start to regurgitate." Joseph responded to this, too. "If he regurgitated," Joseph told Michelle McQueen on ABC-TV's Day One program in 1993, "he regurgitated all the way to the bank."

Joseph kept a grueling rehearsal schedule and groomed his sons to be polished professionals in a very short time. By the age of nine, Michael was singing in nightclubs, working side by side with strippers and draq queens, and getting an education in the process. "This one girl with gorgeous eyelashes and long hair came out and did her routine," he later wrote, "She put on a great performance. All of a sudden, at the end, she took off her wig, pulled a pair of big oranges out of her bra, and revealed that she was a hard-faced guy under all that make-up. That blew me away."

In late 1968, Michael and his brothers were on their way to New York for a taping of their first television appearance on David Frost, when they received a call from Motown Records. The group handily passed their audition for Berry Gordy, owner and founder of Motown, then the largest black-owned business in America. Gordy told the boys that they would have three number one records in a row, and become The Next Big Thing. The success engendered by Michael's singing and dancing prowess went beyond even Gordy's confident estimates. The young brothers became the first black teen idols and Michael made his first "teen dream" solo album at age twelve. Rock critic Vince Aletti expressed amazement at the ability of so young a boy to convey such subtle emotions as "anguish and doubt" with startling authenticity.

During the winter of 1972-73, Michael's voice broke, leaving both his career and that of the group in question. The music business has been generally unkind to former boy sopranos, and Berry Gordy seemed ready to move on to other projects. It looked as though Michael Jackson was destined to be a pubescent golden-oldie. The group began to think seriously of breaking their contract. According to his memoirs, it was fifteen-year-old Michael himself who presented Berry Gordy with the ultimatum: "Let us have creative control or we're gone." In 1974, the family held a press conference to announce that they would sign a new record contract with Epic Records, a division of the CBS Records conglomerate.

After two lukewarm CBS albums with the group, and one big success, Michael made good on CBS's plan for him to record a solo album, though he later remarked that he felt they were merely securing their investment. He had his own, more grandiose plans for a solo career. His first tentative step in this direction involved his acceptance of Gordy's offer to co-star in an all-African American version of The Wizard of Oz, renamed The Wiz. Oscar-winning producer Quincy Jones was the musical director of The Wiz. Jones got on well with Michael during the shoot, and when Jackson suggested that Jones produce his next solo album, he agreed. The collaboration worked both musically and artistically: the Off The Wall album turned out to be smooth as silk, with Jones applying sandpaper to Jackson's audible and exciting rough edges. The tracks conformed to a soft, cascading beat underneath the rich, erotic yearning of Jackson's voice. This new voice, full and mature with low moans and floating falsetto wails, was entirely unrecognizable. The child sensation was gone—in more ways than one.

It was during this period that Jackson began to display, for the first time, some of the odd personal characteristics for which he would later gain notoriety. During the filming of The Wiz, Jackson gave several promotional interviews. Timothy White of the rock magazine Crawdaddy was assigned to interview Jackson and found him quite amusing. He said Jackson appeared "to be in some sort of daze" as he ate food with his fingers at a glitzy French restaurant in Manhattan. During this transitional time, Jackson began to hone his skills as a songwriter. On the Jacksons' album Triumph, he unveiled the idiosyncratic and disquieting songwriting style that would drive the success of the Thriller album. One song, called "This Place Hotel," "came from a dream I had. I dream a lot," he told a reporter. "Live and sin," the song begins, making the narrator's guilt an overwhelming and permanent condition. Set in a haunted hotel run by "wicked women" who appear suddenly in groups of two or three, the singer is trapped by "faces staring, glaring, tearing through me." Probably inspired by the unstable nature of public fame, Jackson's legendary paranoia makes its first appearance: "Every smile's a trial thought in beguile to hurt me." At one point, the singer declares bluntly, "hope is dead." The singing is pained, open-throated, and raw.

In 1982, Jackson was completing work on his second Quincy Jones collaboration. Determined that the new album must match or exceed Off The Wall's popularity, Jones and Jackson sought more powerful music. When Jackson brought in a tape of a new song, "Beat It," Jones began to realize that Jackson could become a powerful phenomenon—a crossover to the "white rock" market. Jackson's hard rocking song about backing away from a fight fit perfectly in the rock style. Jones brought in metal guitarist Eddie Van Halen to do a solo, and the pounding beat coupled with the song's accompanying visual representation of a rhythm & blues singer performing "white" rock began literally to change the face of the music industry.

As the album neared the end of production, Jones still needed one more solid hit and asked Jackson to write another song. For reasons that are unclear, Jackson wrote a fierce song denying paternity of a little boy whose "eyes were like mine." "Billie Jean" is now considered a rock classic. There are times during the song when it seems that the arrangement just cannot keep up with the singer's passion, and Jackson's frenzy seems barricaded by the cool, solid majesty of the arrangement, singing as if lives really did depend on listeners believing his story. The magic of the song is, of course, that the singer is not really sure if he believes himself.

The new album quickly jumped to number five on its release. This time, reluctantly, Jackson did a great number of promotional interviews. He spoke to reporters from Ebony, Newsweek, Interview, and Rolling Stone and filled out written questionnaires for other publications like Creem. He did television shots for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony/Jet Showcase, and America's Top Ten. The interview that everyone talked about, however, was the February 17, 1983 cover story for Rolling Stone.

"I'm the type of person who will tell it all, even though it's a secret. And I know that things should be kept private," Jackson explained to interviewer Gerri Hirshey, neatly encapsulating the "secret" of his success as well. Hirshey described him as extremely nervous and flighty; he suffered the interview as if he were getting stitches. He said he liked to watch cartoons and explained why: "It's like everything's all right. It's like the world is happening now in a faraway city. Everything's fine." Hirshey says the interview remained tense until Jackson relaxed when talking about his animals; he even forced Hirshey to play with his boa constrictor. Then, unbidden by Hirshey, he asked, "Know what I also love? Mannequins … I guess I want to bring them to life," he went on. "I like to imagine talking to them." It may have been with those lines that Thriller mania really began. It wasn't just that Michael Jackson sounded or even looked peculiar; he'd marked himself as irrefutably "Other," a stranger in a strange land.

By early spring of 1983, "Billie Jean" skyrocketed to number one on the Billboard charts, and remained there for seven weeks. This song was followed almost immediately by "Beat It" which stayed on top four weeks. Thriller also reached number one and stayed there. At one point in early 1983, Michael Jackson had an unprecedented number one record on four charts: pop singles and albums, and Black singles and albums. To promote "Billie Jean," CBS had meanwhile financed an expensive " music video," a little film set to the tune. The chief outlet for airing these videos was the cable channel founded in 1981 called Music Television or MTV. According to a September 22, 1986 T.V. Guide story, the cable channel refused to air the video because they said it was not "rock and roll" enough for their format. When CBS threatened to pull all its videos from the cable channel, "Billie Jean" became a rock 'n' roll song.

In 1983, Michael participated in the Motown 25 televised reunion and stole the show with his innovative and breathtaking dancing. He unveiled his famous "moonwalk" for the first time, spun as if on ice skates, and perched precariously on his toes for the briefest moment. He pursued his dance in a sort of calamitous rage. Michael seemed to sense that this was his chance to escape the confines of mere stardom and become something quite different: not the "star" he'd been for years, but an iconic signifier on the order of Marilyn or Elvis. The show aired in May, with "Beat It" and Thriller already laying waste to the charts. After this, there was a buzz of excitement surrounding Jackson, as if each new gesture brought with it a revelation.

As time went on, the revelations his gestures brought were increasingly disturbing. The shadowy transformation revealed itself quickly; in 1984, Michael Jackson very reluctantly submitted to his father's pressure to go on a concert tour with the Jacksons. This "Victory Tour" turned into an unmitigated disaster; high ticket prices created a backlash, the tour was mismanaged, the infighting unmerciful. In the end, Michael himself decided to give away all his proceeds to charity.

After the tour, Michael Jackson "went away" for a while in an attempt to cope with an onslaught of unprecedented pop pressure. He severed many ties with his family, and finally moved out of the family home to a new ranch in Santa Barbara County that he called "Neverland." When he did appear in public, he often wore a surgical mask over his face, which served to hide the cosmetic changes he was making to his appearance. His skin became lighter (due, he said later, to a skin disease), his nose thinned after several surgeries, and he added a cleft to his chin. During this time, Jackson engaged in a variety of eerie publicity stunts. His manager announced Jackson's wishes to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber and purchase the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, England's "Elephant Man." By the time he returned to the popular music scene in 1987, Jackson was widely regarded as a freak. Although his music still sold alarmingly well (and was alarmingly good), and though he was perhaps more famous than ever, by 1993 Jackson was a figure of extreme curiosity, arousing as much pity as fascination.

That the denouement was troubling should not have been altogether surprising; Jackson's life since Thriller seemed to consist of a series of troubling crises. On August 17, 1993, a Los Angeles County child protective services caseworker took down a report alleging that Jackson had molested a young boy. (In November of that year, the underage son of one of Jackson's former employees also made a claim of impropriety to L.A. County's CPS.) After Jackson settled the civil case and the investigation closed, he resumed his career. First he married Elvis Presley's daughter Lisa Marie, and when that union ended after 18 months, he married and produced two children with Debbie Rowe, a Los Angeles nurse. By the late 1990s, Jackson seemed to simply revel in his role as a human oddity.

—Robin Markowitz

Further Reading:

Anderson, Christopher P. Michael Jackson: Unauthorized. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Campbell, Lisa D. Michael Jackson: The King of Pop. Boston, Branden Books, 1993.

George, Nelson. The Michael Jackson Story. New York, Dell, 1984.

Hirshey, Gerri. Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. New York, Times Books, 1984

Jackson, K., with Wiseman, R. The Jacksons: My Family. New York, St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1990.

Jackson, La Toya. LA Toya: Growing Up in the Jackson Family. New York, Dutton, 1991.

Jackson, Michael. Moonwalk. New York, Doubleday, 1988.

Matthews, Gordon R. Michael Jackson. New York, J. Messner, 1984.

Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness. New York, Birch Lane Press, 1991.

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